Burned, Broken & Illness: The 1883 Winkler Family Tragedy

Dover Ohio Iron Furnace 1910

The development of heavy industry in Tuscarawas County in the 19th century led to an influx of immigration from all over the European continent. Among the immigrant families that relocated to the county was the Winkler family from Switzerland. Four brothers hoped to start a new life in America and bring the rest of their family here as well. Fate would have a different plan.


The month of January 1883 was a cursed one for the family of Dover resident John Winkler (c. 1855-1883). John, and three of his brothers, had immigrated to Ohio during the 1870s and 1880s. Three of the brothers, including John, settled in Tuscarawas County and a fourth decided to try his luck in Stark County. There was already a Winkler family living in Tuscarawas County prior to John’s immigration here, though I have not been able to determine if they were directly related to John’s family.

According to newspaper accounts of the Winkler family tragedy, the four Winkler brothers were recent immigrants from Switzerland. John, at least, immigrated to Tuscarawas County in May 1882. It is possible that one, or more, of his brothers had already settled here, thus encouraging the others to relocate. That being said, the 1870 and 1880 census records for Tuscarawas County do not contain any records that would match up to the four brothers’ known names, ages, and immigration status.

The Penn Iron and Coal Company furnace, 1899. (Source: loc.gov)

One record that does match up with the story is John Winkler’s marriage to Anne Correll (1853-1932) in July 1882, only a couple of months after his arrival. It is probable that Anne was the daughter of Israel Correll (1829-1912), a New Philadelphia shop owner. The couple settled in Dover and John found work as a top-filler, or charger, at the Penn Iron and Coal Furnace. The top-filler works on a platform at the top of the furnace and receives cars of coke, iron ore and limestone to drop into the furnace.

The Penn Iron and Coal Company needed to make repairs to their blast furnace and, as a result, the fire that raged within it needed to be put out and the furnace emptied. John Winkler was tasked with pouring car-loads of water down into the furnace to lower the temperature and put out the fire. The morning of Tuesday, January 23, 1882 was a cold one, and ice had formed on the platform on which John was working as he poured car-load after car-load of water into the furnace. With each car-load, hot steam belched out of the top of the furnace.

That morning, John would have been aware that his brother residing in Canton had fallen seriously ill. John’s two other brothers had left the day before to visit him, fearing he would not survive. Adding to the family stress was the knowledge that their mother was on a ship at sea, making her way to join her sons in Ohio. Perhaps all of this was on John’s mind when, after dumping a car-load of water into the furnace, he slipped on ice and fell into the mouth of the furnace as the steam surged upwards.

A coworker on the platform grabbed for John as he fell in and managed to pull him out of the mouth of the furnace, but the damage had been done. According to reports of the accident, John was “literally cooked, and the flesh was almost dropping from his bones.” He was taken home and somehow managed to live for another eight hours before succumbing to his wounds. When John died, he was unaware of the other family tragedy that occurred the day before.

The New Philadelphia Democrat, 1 February 1883.

Monday morning, January 22, 1883, John’s two brothers boarded a train in Dover to take them to Mineral City where they would pick up another train to Canton, to visit their sick brother. Upon arriving in Mineral City they learned that they had missed the train and had to find other transportation to Canton. They hired a man to take them there in his wagon. After departing Mineral City, the wagon carrying the brothers neared Sandyville when the team pulling the wagon was spooked by something and bolted. Both brothers were thrown from the wagon and one, recorded by the press as either “Fritz” or “S” Winkler fractured his skull and died some days later. The second brother, reportedly named Christian, was also injured but managed to survive the accident.

Just days after the two accidents, news reached New Philadelphia that their mother had died while in passage from Switzerland to the United States. Their brother in Canton died from his illness shortly after the accidents as well. Three months after John Winkler’s death in the furnace, his wife Anne would give birth to their son, John. The New Philadelphia Democrat wrote of the events:

“The sons were industrious and came to this great free country of ours with bright hopes for the future. But fate seems to have decided otherwise, and a happy family of a few months ago is now extinct.”

If you have any further information on this branch of the Winkler family, please feel free to leave it a comment. Thanks!

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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